Robert Tanitch reviews Dr Angelus at Finborough Theatre, London, SW10
The Scottish playwright James Bridie (1888-1951), co-founder of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and the first drama school in Scotland, was also instrumental in the establishment of the Edinburgh Festival.
Bridie, who had had a medical career before he became a full-time professional playwright, was the author of over 40 plays and a number of screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock. His heyday was the 1930s and 1940s.
Dr Angelus was based on the 60-year-old murderer Dr Edward Pritchard, the last man to be publicly hanged in Scotland and witnessed by 8,000 people in 1885. He had poisoned his mother-in-law and wife within a month of each other.
The medical profession admitted that they had had suspicions about Pritchard but did not act because it was against medical etiquette for one doctor to inform on another doctor.
Bridie updates the action to 1920 and converts a macabre Victorian melodrama into a modern psychological thriller. Jenny Ogilvie’s revival is the first production in England since its premiere in 1947.
Dr Angelus (played by David Rintoul) was created for and acted by Alastair Sim and it is easy to imagine Sim in the role, relishing the eccentricity and sheer evil of a brutal scoundrel, whose Behaviour is always hypocritical and never Hippocratic.
His 24-year-old partner (played by Alex Bhat), whom he flatters, bullies and blackmails, was created by George Cole (a wartime evacuee who became Sim’s adopted son).
The partner is in awe of Pritchard. Torn between medical ethics and personal loyalty, he hasn’t got the guts to speak out. He knows he is an accessory if he does not speak out and Bridie gives his guilty conscience full rein in a surreal nightmare sequence.
The Police Inspector (Malcolm Rennie), who comes to arrest Angelus, has a sense of humour and the final scene has an unexpected light touch.
Dr Angelus deserves to be seen by a much bigger audience than its present run at the Finborough will permit.